Around a year ago, perhaps a little more, I watched the end of Strawberry Panic and thought, broadly, sucks to be those two evil hot lesbian girls. Of course, it just plain sucks to be Miyuki or Tamao, but Shizuma didn't deserve Miyuki and Tamao never worked for me anyway. So I thought I'd throw together a nice 5000 word oneshot providing Kaname and Momomi, once I could remember their names, with some plot closure.
Once I'd written 5000 words, however, it wasn't enough. So I thought I'd do a little 10-15 chapter run as a character study, exploring their past and possible motivations. I'd spend perhaps 3-5 chapters on their second year and move on, up to the present and then the future.
Once I'd written 25,000 words, I got bored and went off to do something else. Six months later, I came back and decided to pick the story up again. After a while, I noticed I probably wasn't going to get past their second year. So I decided to just write that instead. But that hasn't been neat, either. I can say with absolute honesty that on every round number since chapter 40 I said the next round number would be the end of it. So much for that. Astraea Lake is essentially a case of project creep gone critical, but that's okay. I should have known better than to think I could control the energy of characters like these.
I don't own Strawberry Panic. After this long, I'm out of jokes, though. Feel free to make up your own. If you've supported me for this long, you deserve that much.
"So? What are you going to do now?"
Momomi frowned, looking up at a very blue sky. Below them, a very blue lake glittered. "I don't know. I'll have to think about that."
"Is that so?"
"How about you? Do you have anything in mind?"
"Not in particular," Kaname admitted. "Really, we didn't make any plans for what came after. One way or the other."
"Isn't it ironic, though? We didn't even get on that damn stage. It's been four years and we still didn't even get as far as that stage…"
"It can't be helped. Shion was against us from the start, and she's still a powerful person. And even if we wielded a lot more influence than Amane, she made far less enemies, because she was a strictly neutral person. Like that, we'd always be a controversial choice, and divisive figures-"
"I know that," Momomi replied testily. "Don't insult my intelligence, Kaname."
"Even if I can understand the logic and the politics, it's a very long time and a lot of effort to go to waste, without anything to show for it at all. I can't be happy about that."
"I know. But it's not important. It's just a title, isn't it? There's no meaning in it. The Stars… say that to yourself and show me the sense."
"That's obvious, isn't it? The sense is in the stars that shine, where everyone looks at them." Momomi tilted her head, looking calmly at Kaname. "In other words, the title of most outstanding student. To be the best, not for any rhyme or reason but for its own sake, is a motivation you understand. For as long as I can remember, Kaname, that's been your fascination. I've sacrificed a lot for that, so don't disown it now."
"I know. But you were the same. Don't portray yourself as a victim strung along by wicked old me, the truth isn't that convenient."
"I know." Momomi chuckled. "You know, perhaps talking isn't very useful after all. We know each other too well; there's no meaning in it at all. The only question is whether or not we want to accept that meaning."
"If it's said out loud, it's something that will have to be accepted. Perhaps." Kaname sighed discontentedly. "But honestly, this kind of life doesn't satisfy me at all. It doesn't suit us."
"Defeat doesn't suit us, Kaname. But we've lost."
"I could care less about that. Didn't you learn anything from our race with Amane?"
"What was there to learn? Asides from your affections-"
"The Etoile is a title for two, even though it's a singular concept. For as long as Amane remained apart, it didn't matter how outstanding she was. She didn't have any right to claim that title. It's not just the most outstanding student, but a student who can cultivate that kind of connection…" Kaname smirked. "Even if the second one isn't very outstanding at all."
"I hope that wasn't me you were referring to."
"Are you stupid?"
Momomi sat up, running a hand through her hair and looking down at the lake. "Sometimes I wonder…"
Kaname sat up, sighing and following her gaze. "That bad, huh?"
"So the Etoile is a position for two… that much is obvious. But, if I was to be bitter, then that's pretty damning in itself. For better or for worse, and excepting that phase of yours-"
"Oh, come on. That was your phase too!"
"We've been through a lot, over a long time. Real, not ideal, sometimes troubled but always passionate… compare that to those children and their puppy love, how are you supposed to justify that? Doesn't that pervert the whole system?"
"Well, you know this school," Kaname remarked. "It's all about appearances. That's all that matters. The idea of a destined love, as opposed to something real, sells well. It doesn't even have to last, does it? It just has to last for long enough."
"That's true enough. But still, if you're talking about emotions, then I won't compromise. Our bond is greater." Momomi picked up a pebble and threw it at the lake. "That's what I would have said before, anyway."
Kaname closed her eyes. "I know. But did I ever tell you the difference between the fakes and the real thing?"
"Not in so many words, no," Momomi replied irritably. "Though I have some idea of where you're going. Something about cracked girls, perhaps."
"Not exactly. But the difference isn't in appearances, that's for sure. It's very easy for fakes to appear just like the real thing, and often there isn't a great deal of difference between them. How you seem and how people see you is something that remains very easy to manipulate… more than that, though, it isn't anything that requires conscious manipulation. Simply put, you'll never tell just by looking at the generalities. Just like a decent forgery, the distinction is in the detail."
"Well, that's nice to know," Momomi muttered. "Now I'm good enough to almost pass for that third-year brat and her sickening smirk and her warbling voice and her diffuse attitude-"
"Well, don't get agitated." Kaname stood, brushing herself off and taking a step towards the lake. "It's not really a matter of personality, either, or rather the general thrust of your personality isn't all that important. To all intents and purposes, if it works at all it will probably work well enough to begin with, and certainly people aren't too picky about personality. Even when someone's personality flaws are deep and blatant, their antisocial tendencies wide open for all to see and their disinterest in everyone around them clear, that will be ignored if they have enough of an indeterminate something. It's not anything that can be described. But if you have it, anything will be forgiven. Even if you aspire to the title of Etoile."
"Is that so? Well, aren't we lucky…"
"Now, how should I put this?" Kaname closed her eyes. "The difference between a fake and the real thing isn't anything that can be observed in a single moment. A single moment can, perhaps, be perfect, but that's meaningless in an ever-moving world. Appearance, personality and attitude, whether real or projected, aren't differentiated in a single moment. That's just a dead still-portrait, a pretty picture that has nothing to do with the real world. Even if it's a moving picture, a string of pictures, a film, if you will… that's just a neat excerpt, edited and framed by the time spent on it, the result is completely fake. It's like a fairytale, framed between a beginning and a happy ending. Real life is contiguous. That's why you can only distinguish the real thing from what others can affect over a great span of time."
"So it's our fault, then? Because we could never compete with Amane, as she's the real thing? Is that what you're saying?" Momomi scowled irritably. "Your worship of her really does know no limits. But I don't understand it at all. Why are you claiming that fundamental difference now? You always said you were as good as her! You were always as proud as her! So what are you doing?"
"You're noisy. I never said anything about that." Kaname looked over her shoulder. "Let me finish. The difference between the real and the fake is time. The fakes can look perfect for a while but they won't last. The real thing doesn't even have to look perfect, because it's far stronger at heart… it's not about appearances or personality or anything like that. It is, unto itself, an end to itself, forever consistent. A fake is a happy summer romance, a fairy-tale with a prince and a princess." She walked towards the lake. "The real thing is sadness and stupidity, an endless parade of mistakes that is completely ugly… but for all that, and forever, it remains. I'll remain here with you, and you won't abandon me. That's what reality is." She stopped, glaring at her reflection. "As ever, reality fucking sucks. But it's not like it ever pretended to be kind. It's something everyone has to deal with in the end."
"So that complex of yours won't disappear so easily after all…"
"You sure enjoying having it both ways, don't you?"
"No, it's fine." Momomi shook her head. "It suits me just fine."
"I see." Kaname looked away again. "Well, it's not like I've ever pretended to be an honest and sincere person, after all…"
"Even if you pretended, you wouldn't fool me for a moment anyway." Momomi fell back, looking at the sky. "But, when you say with such assurance that I'll stay, that doesn't exactly make me satisfied."
"I guess trust is well past its sell-by date in this relationship. But that's fine. If you can't quit, it's as good as if you won't, and even if you have niggling resentments I'd rather you were here slashing me to ribbons with them than elsewhere."
"You're a surprising sado-masochist, aren't you. You always talk in such violent ways, after all…"
"I'm a violent person. But you're a cruel person, so either way it works well."
"And is Amane a cruel person?" Momomi asked sarcastically. "Or is it the fact that she's kind something that appeals strangely."
"No. She is a cruel person, in her own way. But you know that already. In any case, from now on, I could care less about Amane."
"That's nice to know. It'd be even nicer if I could believe you."
"You're not still going on about that, are you?"
"I know you very well, Kaname. And if you've become very accustomed to me, you've also become very accustomed to Amane." Momomi held her hand up at arm's length, frowning thoughtfully. "Always, always, you hate her and watch her, compete with her and acknowledge her, think about her and obsess over her… this isn't anything like the first time when I wondered who is more important to you."
"Well, you're right, of course. Amane is my most important rival, and I've spent years trying to beat her. My consistent failure is frustrating enough. And you're right, too, in that there were certainly times where she was the most important person I was worrying about."
Momomi let her hand fall back, turning her head and looking at the trees. "I thought so. Well, it was obvious."
"Of course. Anyone would be like that." Kaname snorted. "Whoever heard of anyone who castles when their Queen is in the enemy lines?"
"Hmm?" Momomi closed her eyes. "Okay, you won't get me twice. If I'm a person you can count on, then you shouldn't spend time on me. You should waste all your energy on the other person you recognise in this school… perhaps the only other person you acknowledge here at all."
"Exactly. You know, don't you? That's the kind of thinking you use when you intend to live an uncompromising life."
"Or alternately, it's just a cool way of saying that you've been taking me for granted. Am I wrong?"
"No. I've been taking you for granted. But if you hadn't noticed, I just said that I'm through with Amane. If you don't believe me, I can't help it."
"You can say that all you please, but you've said all you need to say anyway." Momomi folded her hands behind her head. "Because you can't count on me anymore, you're concentrating on me. You'll live me attention, energy and dare I even say love. But that's just castling when the enemy queen is in your lines. Once you've fixed things between us, you'll go running after Amane again. In short, you live in a selfish way, following your interests."
"And you let me get away with that."
"And I let you get away with that."
"But that's a very elegant simplification as well, isn't it? The fact that I wanted to beat Amane is undeniable, but who is the one who wanted to become Etoile?" Kaname knelt, grabbing a pebble, and threw it at the lake. It skipped twice before sinking without trace. "That would be you. In that respect, you turned a lot of your own energy outwards. You've always been the one to drive me to that, after all. You had your own obsession, and it's the end of that obsession as much as my betrayal that has damaged our relationship. It mattered to you, and I broke it. That was my mistake, but it's nor yours to say it didn't exist at all."
"Oh, really? Certainly, I wanted the title, and it would be wrong for me to deny that. But it is absolutely wrong for you to pretend that my 'obsession' is the same as yours. Didn't you notice?" Momomi snorted. "Well, I never let you notice, because you hate insecure people. But I'd spent months without the smallest sign of affection from you. You always had my attention, I always supported you and you always took the lead with Amane… but with everything else, I always took the lead. You know what I mean. I woke up one morning and noticed that my own girlfriend was too busy to have sex with me."
"Are you seriously telling me you don't like to take the lead? That's how your taste runs, nothing to do with victimhood. No, I'd believe in that if I never had the time or if I kept making excuses. As it is, it was just an easy routine for both of us. That's what I thought, anyway." Kaname stooped again, searching for another pebble. "If you had a problem, you should have just told me. That shows a lack of trust in itself."
"As ever, you're quick to deflect blame, even as you feign contrition." Momomi folded her arms. "And unusually for you, you're missing the point. It's not just about the sex. You let me, but that was all. You granted me permission. You never said nice things, or that you loved me, or bothered with anything superfluous at all… you just did what you had to do. By the time I noticed that, I didn't know your feelings at all. I didn't even know whether I was a desirable person to you anymore, and for someone like me to have such doubts… that really is wrong. So I pushed even harder than before, but that hardly helped at all."
"Well, you know how I am," Kaname muttered. "I don't need to hear these things, because I know. And you should be the same. I don't like to say it over and over; it's just the way things are, something that won't change. I love you. I love your body, and everything you do with it. You shouldn't get insecure about that."
"And how was I supposed to take all that on faith when you said nothing? When you just sat by and let things happen? When Amane had your full attention?" Momomi gritted her teeth. "You tell me, Kaname. I'm smart but I'm not a telepath."
"Well, if you didn't know that perhaps you aren't so smart after all!" Kaname snapped. "It's always been that way, right? And I've always been that way too. This isn't anything new."
"Yes, you've always been that way, alright! It's something I hate about you!"
"And I hate people who make me say it over and over. So where are we then?"
"Very troubled. But what am I supposed to say, Kaname?" Momomi frowned unhappily. "I'm just a girl. I need you to say these things. I need you to care. If you don't give me that, I don't have anything to take from this but sex and emptiness inside…"
Another pebble plopped into the water. "Isn't it enough to just know?" Kaname asked quietly. "It's always been that way with you… I knew in my mind that you cared so much for me, and that feeling alone was enough."
"Don't make yourself the victim here. I was the one who had to suffer like this for so, so long." Momomi shredded several blades of grass with her free hand, scattering them to the wind. "How hard would it be? Is your dignity really that important to you? Because even if it's you, Kaname, if your ego is more important than my feelings…" Momomi closed her eyes again. "I can't be in that kind of relationship."
"If my ego was more important, I wouldn't feel like crap right now. But you know that I'm a proud person." She sat abruptly, picking through the grass. "And I know I screwed up on a lot of things. I wish I could say that I'd make it up to you, but I can't even count on myself for that. I'm that kind of person. Someone who takes without giving, forever. It's not like I don't know."
"Self-pity's useless. Do something to change, or just go… even if you say I'll always be with you, there's a limit to what I can take. And it's been far too long for us to be anything like friends."
"That suits me fine. I'll have everything or nothing. I've always been that way." Kaname picked up another pebble, weighing it in her hands. "So I will take that chance. I'll take that chance on myself, and do whatever it takes… I'll say it over and over… and I will make it up to you, after all. I love you and only you, and you are the only person who truly appeals to me in a world full of miserable idiots."
"And, if it's any consolation, I prefer it when you take the lead. To know there's someone who I can't dominate in this world, it's a wonderful feeling in a very strange way. But also, I could only allow that from you. What am I trying to say?" Kaname rubbed the back of her head. "Well, you get the idea. But from now on , I won't just rest on that."
She threw the pebble. It skipped six times before sinking.
Momomi frowned. "You know, I've been wondering…"
"What would they say, if they were here?"
"About anything in particular, or just generally?" Kaname chuckled. "Don't answer that… but I really don't think they'd be too surprised. They knew who we were, or else they were even more stupid than I've given them credit for."
"I guess so. That's how it is," Momomi agreed. "But you know, sometimes I wonder whether we know each other least of all, and they knew us better…"
"That's just psychology. We always make people think we understand them better than they do, even if that isn't the case. It's a trick of manner and the mind. All it takes is confidence, and you can make someone else doubt. And if they think you can see their innermost soul, that's all to the good." Kaname chuckled. "And it's even better if you actually can, and we can. People like little Hikari and her friend, what is her name… small people like that are far too easy to read."
"You're an expert at changing the subject, as usual."
"You started this conversation. If you want to go back, you can."
"No. This is fine." Momomi chuckled. "That'd be the best hit we landed on those, wasn't it? It's too bad that she's with her second choice now, twisting the screws there would have been fun and productive. But considering she's more dangerous than Hikari and less lazy than Amane or Shizuma, this way also works. We can destroy the person who can destroy us. That's how it should be."
"Your vicious streak hasn't gone away, either. Well, I know who you are too, of course." Kaname chuckled. "You'd play mind games with an innocent little third-year?"
"Only if she tried it with us. As things stand, we have nothing to gain."
"That's true enough. But still, the art of manner which they used on us, it's ours now." Kaname frowned. "Though I can't say I'm confident that I kept my promise now."
Momomi raised her eyebrows. "Your promise?"
"Even then, I told you that we'd outshine them. Kariya and Serané." Kaname paused for a moment, looking down at the lake. "Looks like we fell just short of the goal."
Momomi smirked. "You think?"
"Well, what can I say?" Kaname turned and looked down at her, smiling wanly. "I make a terrible Kariya. Though you do shine brighter than Serané, but it's a dark light you cast, too…"
"You do know there's no such thing as a dark light, right?" Momomi sat up. "But it is a light I cast, all the same. Even if I'm not called Etoile. There was a lot more to those two than their title. No, the title was the least important thing. Serané and Kariya would be Serané and Kariya regardless. And even now, impossibly enough, I have a little faith in Kaname… though that's because I'm stupid. But it can't be helped, can it?"
"You're saying this now? You know, my life would have been a lot easier if you'd reached this epiphany earlier than now."
"Well, I've had a long time to think. And it looks like I'm a little further than you, because you haven't noticed the truth yourself. You gave me unending trouble because you had to beat Amane. But you'll be yourself, regardless."
"That's very cute. But I'm at my most outstanding when I'm fighting her. Oh, and I make my most monumental fuck-ups, as well. All the same, you know I won't ever believe in being happy just to be myself. That's just too lame. If I was satisfied with that, I'd be a very long way from here. Probably on drugs and even more over-sexed than I am now."
"I don't think the latter is possible. But aside from that, I won't stop aspiring either. That's who I am. And for as long as you chase after Amane, I'm entitled to that." Momomi scratched her nose. "But it's not like we ever put much stock by public opinion. This is fine as well, for now."
"I'm glad," Kaname admitted.
"The truth is that the title Etoile can have so much or so little meaning, depending on the person… but there's plenty of options without the title, all the same. I have a few in mind."
"I know that time. Now you're planning again, aren't you?"
"Of course. Was I likely to be beaten by this forever? Not even you matter to me that much, Kaname. I'm stronger than that."
"Tch. Yeah, you have your stern face on. Is this the same girl that was so whiny just now?"
"At least I wasn't apologising in such a craven way," Momomi retorted. "Now, come on. If you think you've broken your promise just with this, then you're a useless idiot and you can leave now. I've come a long way from who I was then, and I'll go further." She raised her hand. "So, hurry up, already."
Kaname chuckled, taking her hand and pulling the girl up. "Does this mean I'm forgiven?"
"Not for ten thousand years."
"Hmm… then I won't ask for your forgiveness."
"Who needs it, anyway? You can just remember this forever, as I will." Momomi brushed herself off. "If I'm going to be stuck here anyway, it's irrelevant."
Kaname nodded. "So what's the plan, commander?"
"Plan? I haven't had that long to think, you know. I'm still worrying about my certain most troublesome, saddening person." Momomi stuck her hands in her pockets. "But the first step is obvious. You're going to be Spica's Student Council President. That much is natural. Not even Shion can keep that from us. If she moved, we would, and Spica would implode. That's how things are."
"And Amane, Hikari and friends? All three of them, that is…" Kaname shrugged. "The Etoile could keep that from us easily enough. However I look at it, we continue to exist with our reputations intact on their forbearance."
"As I noted before, we can pressurise that Nanto girl fairly effectively. Hikari is essentially passive, despite it all… no, despite it all, she's trying to reach us. Which is ridiculous, but she is a ridiculous girl. I think we can play on that, actually. We weren't on the ball earlier, but if we go to her with enough contrition that should be enough to leverage an opening. If you compare Hikari to Amane, they're not on the same level, at anything. Hikari is Amane's weakness, a unique one, and one she's never had before. As we said before, Hikari is a chance. But we'll play smarter than we did before."
Kaname nodded. "And is Amane going to let us do as much? Even if she didn't move against us before, she won't be fooled by any of our acts, and she'll definitely try to keep Hikari away from us. If she was the one who moved against our nomination… she doesn't even have to mention that. She just has to say she thinks we're a bad choice."
"Amane is not a confrontational person. If it came to that, we'd be forced to yield, but I don't think she'll let it come to that. And even if she did, we can let it be known that we wouldn't go down quietly. We still have strong support from the younger years as well, and while Amane is a good idol she is not a good friend. From now on, you'll be leading the kendo club again, and I'll return to the literature club. Further, when the new year truly begins along with the arrival of the new first years, we can work on them." Momomi's eyes were closed now, her lips compressed in a kind of concentration. "No, this is another chance. If I know Amane, she will fulfil her duties to the letter, unlike Shizuma… but she doesn't possess any drive to go further. Whatever you say of Shizuma, her habit of sexually harassing the lower years made her strangely popular. She noticed them. But Amane is the most diffuse person I've ever met. That hasn't changed."
Kaname rubbed her forehead. "You're scaring me again."
"Ha. I told you, didn't I? Even if I'm upset, I can still think. On that note, a lover's reconciliation is a touching story. It's a pity we were completely upstaged by Shizuma, of course."
"That woman… she always had a flair for the dramatic, but that was so theatrical as to be one of your more audacious stunts. Who does she think she is? A character from one of those crappy romances with the runaway brides?" Kaname snorted. "Incidentally, I'm not what you might call a traditionally-minded person, but those kind of stories annoy me. Abandoning your groom on the altar is what I'd call… critical failure of mental clarity, really. And men who treat women that way get a less gentle treatment, of course, but it's not enough. What kind of idiot doesn't realise their own emotions until then? And how are you supposed to trust someone who abandoned a marriage on the day for you anyway?"
"That's a little off-topic, Kaname," Momomi chided.
"It's on topic. Like I said, Shizuma did that… and that Aoi girl is that kind of person. Well, it's irrelevant insofar as Shizuma won't matter any more, and someone as weak as Aoi isn't anything to worry about either."
"And of course Shizuma's little stunt rather upstaged Amane's election, as well. That can't be bad for us. They're settling in well enough, but only time will tell whether they really have the ability to support the role. That, and the strength of emotion to keep up their relationship…"
"Are you going to suggest sabotaging them?"
"Of course not. That was your plan. It sucked, to say the least. Those two can do what they like all on their own." Momomi frowned thoughtfully. "Though, for all I dismiss Hikari, she does have a certain fundamental… what's the word? Niceness. She's nice."
"So are digestive biscuits."
"Well, quite. But unlike Amane, Hikari actually likes people. So she might gain some friends, as she'd put it, amongst the lower years."
"That shy girl?" Kaname asked cynically. "I can say with one hundred percent confidence that she's one of nature's victims. She managed to say one good thing, but that's as far as she goes."
"Hmm. Well, considering the light that reflects off Amane, she may exponentially grow in confidence."
"If that's the case, we can shoot her down." Kaname caught Momomi's glare. "Subtly. But what's the goal, anyway? This is a long way to go for something as lame and difficult as Student Council President… and it's so obviously the consolation prize. Look at them. Rokujou who wanted to be with Shizuma and Shion who wanted to be with Amane. It's what you might call an admission of defeat."
Momomi chuckled. "Well, that's true enough. But didn't you notice, in that election?"
"It wasn't so much a contest between Spica and Miator as it was a contest between Miyuki and Shion. Both of them handpicked and worked hard with their prospective candidates. Aoi and Suzumi wouldn't have run without Miyuki. Of course, that goes a thousand times over for Amane in particular and Hikari as well… though Shizuma's interference was pretty fatal, it's still Shion's victory. Even now, I think our senpai has something left to teach us."
Kaname closed her eyes. "So you want that role? The term would bekingmaker, right?"
"That's such an aggressive term. It's nothing so dramatic. But it's natural that the Student Council President, the greatest advocate a school has, should guide selection of the new Etoile candidates. Besides, you'll be the Student Council President. You have a stronger reputation."
"But you'll plan this stuff. That makes you the power behind the power behind the throne, at least for a little while…" Kaname laughed. "You'll hate me for saying this, but that role suits you far better than the title 'Etoile'."
"You're right, I think. Kingmaker, you say? It has a nice ring to it." Momomi smiled. "Perhaps we'll call ourselves that after all."
"So that's where we go from here, right?"
"More or less. I still need to iron out the details, and there are bound to be other dimensions… I need to find our candidates, too, but-" Momomi stopped abruptly, glancing at Kaname's face. "What's with that serious look? You'd better not have gotten soft on me."
"No, nothing like that. I'm just…" Kaname stepped forwards, glancing at her with serious eyes. "Welcome back… Momomi."
"Did you really think I'd go anywhere?" Momomi asked quietly. "You said it yourself, I wouldn't just leave."
"Shut up." Kaname threw her arms around Momomi, glaring over the girl's shoulder. "Just because I can say something, that doesn't mean I can believe it."
"Idiot." Momomi's face relaxed and she hugged Kaname in return. "And you call me the insecure, whiny one."
"Like I said, welcome back."
Momomi closed her eyes. "I'm home."